Ngugi wa Thiong’o, the ‘Elusive’ Nobel Peace Prize, and the Politics of Silence


That Ngugi wa Thiong’o is a towering literary and ideological influencer venerated by the world without the Kenyan borders is not contestable. Neither is the fact that he isn’t a divisive nor a uniting figure in Kenya, simply because a larger chunk of the youthful population active in sociopolitical discourse does not identify with him. This important segment of citizenry has not experienced the man who was once detained by Jomo Kenyatta in 1977, released by Moi, only to flee into exile in the USA after his theatre in Limuru was burnt down by the latter’s government.

After the 2002 elections, the country went abuzz when Ngugi declared that his self-imposed exile was over. Like many other young people who have read his works, I looked forward to seeing one of the most important, if not the most talked about literary figures, come back home and help realise what he had always agitated for: a free and prosperous society devoid of avoidable structural conflict.  It wasn’t much to ask of the professor of literature, who through his plays, books and commentary, had played the oppressed man’s advocate. Since his first return, Ngugi has been here again and again, holding seminars and talks in which unfortunately, has proven that he is either keen to be silent or disengaged from the current sociopolitical discourse.

There are many reasons to believe Ngugi’s silence is deliberate. In a 2008 essay written for Granta, Ngugi says that he felt a complex mixture of emotions as he watched televised images of fire and death stalking Kenyan streets, following the bangled December 2007 elections. As expected of the once vocal academic, he would not keep calm as the mayhem morphed into one of the goriest situations Kenya has ever witnessed since independence. I listened to him give his opinion on the BBC radio, where he claimed repeatedly that what was happening was a case of ethnic cleansing. From his tone, he was a pained man. That is not what he had expected just five years after Kenyans were branded the most hopeful people in the world. That is the Ngugi I knew; the one who rattled the Kenyatta and Moi governments for their ills.

However, in 2008, Ngugi blamed the opposition for the mayhem. In many of his essays he had blamed systematic conflict perpetrated by the government through unequal distribution of resources, nepotism and runaway corruption as root causes of such conflicts. His novel, Matigari, is premised upon questioning such injustices and demanding for the truth.

So, what had changed this time round?

Ngugi was rooting for Mwai Kibaki to win the 2007 election. He wrote a letter to the people of Limuru beseeching them to help Kibaki win and also give the president a good MP. It is his democratic right to support and campaign for anyone he likes. Yet it was a moral stroke against the verses he had written in the seminal works that earned him worldwide recognition. The same Kibaki that Ngugi had branded as Moist (a people who had either at one time served Moi or were influenced by Moi, thus could easily continue with the Moi ‘philosophies’ of structural misgovernance), was now his darling.

In his letter, Ngugi hails Kibaki’s first five years and writes, Nobody has been imprisoned with or without trial or killed or forced into exile because of his political views or for criticising Mwai Kibaki and his government … I pray that you will chose(sic!) to return Mwai Kibaki to power so that he can give us more peace, stability and progress for Limuru and the country for the next five years.

That was where Ngugi’s silence (which some might term indifference) against the ills of a government started. In that period, the NARC government almost collapsed because of the Anglo-Leasing scandal. There was blatant theft of public resources right, left, and centre. An atrocity is an atrocity, it doesn’t matter who is committing it. As a young person who was among the hopefuls for a better Kenya, I wished for Ngugi and his contemporaries to stand up and lead in voicing the people’s concerns. That’s his work: mirroring the society. And because of his standing, he would have made a difference, the same way he had done in the seventies and eighties. I was to be disappointed.

Like Aung San Suu Kyi, the Nobel Peace Prize laureate who kept silent when the Muslim community was being annihilated in her own Myanmar, Ngugi has deliberately kept silent on the evils of the immediate successive regimes against the common man. For a while, the literary giant has been fronted as a possible winner of the Nobel Peace Prize for Literature, and it breaks my heart every time his odds of winning go lower.

In the few days gone by, I have waited for Ngugi to redeem himself by at least voicing his concerns on the atrocities being committed by State machinery against the common man following the annulled 2017 elections, but all I have heard is loud silence. I have waited in vain for him to go back to his BBC interview where he says, A government must always be held to higher standards, for its very legitimacy lies in its capacity to ensure peace and security for all communities.

Despite hailing Kibaki for providing the atmosphere for freedom of expression during his first term, Ngugi barely gives his opinion about the  detainment of various journalists and bloggers under the current government. Neither did he during Kibaki’s second term. Whether the Nobel Peace Prize Academy decides to award Ngugi the prize for Literature in the next few hours or not, it is no hidden fact that Kenya’s best known literary giant has failed the youth, to whom he would have passed on the baton for a better tomorrow. The reasons for his silence are best known to him, yet leave room for frightening conjecture.


Hillary Namunyu is a writer and literary editor based in Nairobi. He is an enthusiast of Early Chapter books and a student of international conflict management.